What Comes Around Goes Around: Chalkboards

Walking through schools as they prepare for a new flock of students, I never tire of the smells, sights, and sounds. The wax is shiney and new as I squeak along its reflective path. School wax has a distinctive smell that endures even as schools have embraced change after change.  Although the exciting sounds of children have not yet flooded its halls, teachers have been busily preparing to welcome them home.

Chalkboards have hung from school walls from the very first Little House on the Prairie school house.  The feel of chalk dust on my fingertips has been a comfort rather than an allergy to be avoided.  As with many aspects of education, the chalkboard lost its place among the constants of school, and was replaced by the whiteboard with its efficient and allergy free, but headache inducing markers.  Kids and teachers loved the whiteboard with its shiny sheen and lack of chalk dust, but its sterile nature seemed lacking.

Entering schools this past week, I noticed a shift.  The whiteboards were still prominently displayed in the fronts and backs of classrooms, but now there was a shadow waiting to take its place back in the classroom: Chalkboard Paint.  Chalkboard paint on cabinets, on doors, on teacher procured furniture.  And it wasn’t just black chalkboard paint, it was rainbow colored.  It seems that chalkboards are back and making a splash with color alongside its whiteboard nemesis.

As I reflected on my walks through schools in their many stages of preparation, I thought about those chalkboards and the old adage we hear about change:  If you are in it long enough, you will see change come and go and come back around again.  Yes, chalkboards changed to whiteboards and may be coming back again, but their return is marked by a refinement, a growth, that made them better.  As we roll out changes, hopefully with, but many times for teachers, we need to be clear about how a change, although potentially a new iteration of a previous innovation, has been refined and enhanced.  About how this change can be integrated into an already healthy collection of instructional strategies owned and created by teachers.

Change can be good, but under what conditions?  When it builds on what teachers already know. When its rationale is clearly articulated. When teachers have some say, some level of input into how the change impacts them. When it is supported by quality professional development into which teachers have input.  When there is time for inquiry, reflection, and collaboration.  Teachers embrace change even when it comes around again in a new and improved form when they can see the benefits to their students, their own learning, their classroom.




Kids Notice

This weekend my daughter (ten years old) and one of her friends had a sleep over (I call them stay overs, because typically there is little sleep happening) with their American Girl Dolls (AGDs).  Her friend could not bring her full compliment of her AGD army because Julie’s head melted a bit when accidentally left next to the heater, and so she was off to the AGD hospital for a new head (not really a critical part of this story, but a funny anecdote).

My daughter has a rather large AGD house in her room (thanks to her dad and grandpa).  One of the rooms in her house includes a fully stocked school – is that due to her mother’s long standing career in education or the highly effective marketing of the AGD catalogs that seem to arrive at our door as steadily as emails to my inbox.  Anyway, as the girls were setting up to play school, they assigned roles to their dolls.  One of the first roles assigned was to Mia who was honored with the role of intern.  I only overhead this brief interchange as I breezed through my daughter’s room, but it gave me pause to reflect on the impact these  pre-professionals have on our children.  That my daughter and her friend (both of whom have interns in their classrooms this year) thought to include an intern as an important member of their school, tells you how our Professional Development School has become a fully participating member of our school community.  We are not the PSU/SCASD PDS, we are our PDS.  In my recent district newsletter I considered how to refer to our upcoming inquiry conference and went back and forth about is it a university/district PDS or is it just our PDS – the lines being so blurred that the distinct partners are no longer separate entities, but rather an evolved organization that is stronger because of the contributions of both partners.

Hearing the word intern in my house brought this point home to me in such a powerful way.  Not only did it show how integral the PDS is, but it showed me that kids notice.  What we do, what we model in our classrooms, is noticed.  I have been involved in our PDS partnership for fifteen years and have never been more proud of the work educators have contributed to learning – learning of interns, teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and students.  When I asked my daughter about her experiences with interns (she has had an intern in her classroom four of five years), she talked about being proud of being with an intern.  She gets that she is helping interns learn just as her intern helps her learn – just ask her to sing the Buffalo song, written to Roar – and you get the idea (Thank you Mr. Polak!).

I found this post waiting for me to complete and realized I never posted it this spring.  Given that we are preparing for another school year and welcoming a fresh class of interns, I thought I would reread it and post it now.  I think it’s a good reminder of how much children notice in our classrooms – whether we are interns, teachers, administrators, or parents, they notice.






Writing Ramblings

My daughter, who is in fourth grade, voluntarily proclaims that writing is her favorite subject in school (next to PE, recess, and lunch, of course).  What literacy crazed parent/educator would not want to hear that!  I love her passion for writing, the creativity she brings to her work,  the natural voice she is able to draw from her pen, and of course, her sense of humor she naturally includes.

Last night she completed her spelling story for the week.  A task where she needs to take her spelling words and use them in a writing piece of her choosing.  Now I know that our writing purists may scoff at such a writing task, but she took to it like an NFL player preparing for the Superbowl.  Even though the vocabulary was forced upon her, it did not deter her from finding her writing voice, creating an interesting character, and working out a sophisticated plot.  I have to say I was impressed.  The assigned vocabulary actually helped her create an imaginative story, which she viewed as a healthy challenge. How can I get all of these words to make sense in a story?  It motivated her.

However, not all of her writing tasks are as motivating to complete.  When she is assigned a specific topic (even if she gets to pick a topic from a list of topics), the dreaded prompted writing, she freezes.  She drags out her writing and it is painful for all to endure.  She is able to vocalize that she does not like to write for prompts – that she likes writing much better when she gets to choose the topic, even if she does not get to choose all of the words in the writing assignment.  And her writing shows it: she writes better when she can choose her topic.  We know that about reading and writing – choice matters, choice motivates, and choice gives kids voice in their learning. Yet, we are caught in a conundrum of honoring our students’ choices and preparing them for high stakes testing with no choice.

Even though I know that my daughter’s favorite type of writing is when she has choice,  I fully recognize that she needs to be pushed beyond where she is currently writing, and I trust her teacher to be able to assess where she is and help her take the next step through mini-lessons, conferring, peer sharing, etc.  We need high expectations for our student writers, but narrowing writing so that students respond to assigned prompts to the point where they vocalize that they don’t like writing, makes me shudder.  Thankfully, she has much choice in her writing due to our writing workshop approach, but when the prompted writing is assigned, it’s just another assignment to complete, rather than an opportunity to grow as an authentic writer.

This blog has been in the queue for a week and then I had the opportunity to attend a full day workshop with Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Participating in this conference only reinforced my writing ramblings about how students need choice, and need high expectations paired with some pretty direct instruction about how to write.  Students are writers and we need to treat them as such.  Lucy Calkins pairs her knowledge with realistic experiences so you know she gets teaching and has incredibly high expectations for teachers and students.  She left us all with the knowledge that we can teach students how to write and write well.

Teachers are Protective

At the start of this year, my daughter’s teacher sent home a survey asking us to describe our child, her strengths, needs, etc. like many  teachers do.  Among all of the questions asked, one really struck me.  She asked: “What type of teacher motivates your child?”  I had to think about that one and actually asked my daughter (4th grade) this question in one of our car rides, and she said all of the usual descriptors – fun, awesome, kind, etc. (and her teacher is all of those things and more) but then she added protective.  I thought that was an interesting word from a kid’s perspective.  She could not really elaborate beyond the organization needed to participate in a fire drill, but perhaps the word speaks for itself.  I love that description for a teacher – protective.  It can mean so much – protective of their hearts, their friendships, their learning time, their passions, and most importantly their potential, etc.  It also suggests a power and influence that teachers have with their students and that students want and need from their teachers.

I share that story because of comments I hear from teachers about how teachers are feeling a lack of control about their work, and I certainly understand some of those feelings.  However, don’t give your power away – teachers have so much under their influence as they work with children every day.   Yes we have state standards we need to address and those have been created for us, but how we go about teaching those standards is in our hands.  We are working hard to truly unpack and understand these standards to create a curriculum that enhances learning for students, that provides a space for responsive teaching for different learning needs and styles, that respects teachers’ knowledge and skills and students’ learning, that provides multiple resources to support teaching and learning, and that offers multiple ways to assess student learning.

The work teachers do is valued.  Teachers’  contributions to the kids they teach and their families are powerful.  Think about the number of students teachers teach each day, each year.  Teachers touch children’s lives with every decision they make, conversation they have, and lesson they teach.  Teachers are protective!

Reading and Writing are Situated in Community

I have been wanting to blog for some time, but I have not put the effort into making this goal happen.  Then one of my colleagues I admire started to blog, and I thought, why haven’t I come clean with my goal.  Reading her first blog made me ponder my reflections about reading and writing and everything I am learning in a new role I assumed this year.   My colleague’s blog got me thinking about making my reflections public or at least just sitting down on occasion and taking some time to commit them to writing.

On New Year’s Eve we have a tradition of going bowling with friends and their kids.  This year we had so many in our party that we needed three lanes to handle everyone! The kids had a blast and the adults got to chat in a relaxed and fun family environment.  In one of my conversations with a friend, I touched base with her about the books she was reading. I love trading book stories with her and we always have books to recommend to each other as well as books to recommend for our kids.  She asked me if I had read the most recent Barbara Kingsolver book, Flight Behavior, and I said that I had it checked out from the library, but I was having a tough time getting into the book.  I loved The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees, but really could not get into Lacuna and this book was starting out just as slowly.  I had put it aside.  But hearing that my friend (and her husband) both recommended the book, I gave it another go and now I can’t put it down. Sometimes, we need a nudge to persevere with a book because not all books jump into our lap like a familiar pet.  Flight Behavior was such a book for me.

So what do these two interactions have in common?  Why did they come together for me in this blog?  As I thought about both interactions – one virtual and one in person, I realized the importance of having a reading and writing community.  I have always loved to connect with people about reading and books – I subscribe to blogs about books, I am on Goodreads, and I interact with friends and colleagues about books all of the time, but I had not really thought about all of those interactions as a community. My reading has always been situated in community; I had just not ascribed those interactions to a community.  Reading my colleague’s blog got me thinking about the importance of community in our reading and writing lives.  Her blog prompted me to not only read her blog, but to finally start a blog of my own.  My friend’s book recommendation launched my reading of a book I had cast aside.  My reading and writing community moves me beyond where I would have landed on my own.

When we think about reading and writing for our students, we need to think about situating both in their communities – where they can talk about books with each other, make recommendations, debate the merits of how Allegiant ended, for example, and become wild readers a la Donalyn Miller.  And where they can prod each others’ writing, share a story they have written, and push each other to write what they would not have written alone.  As educators we need to honor and support these communities.  And where they don’t exist, we need to help our students find, create, and sustain these powerful communities because it’s in these communities where reading and writing come to life.